Reuters (UK newswire)
Wednesday 15 February 2012
Honduras prison fire
kills more than
by Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA (Reuters) -- A massive fire swept through an overcrowded prison in Honduras and killed more than 350 inmates, many of them trapped and screaming inside their cells.
A senior official at the attorney general's office, Danelia Ferrera, said 357 people died in the blaze that began late on Tuesday night at the prison in Comayagua, about 75 km / 45 miles north of the capital Tegucigalpa.
"It's a terrible scene ... Our staff went into the cells and the bodies are charred, most of them are unrecognizable," Ferrera told Reuters, adding that officials would have to use dental records and DNA in many cases to identify those killed.
It was one of the worst prison fires ever in Latin America.
"We heard screaming from the people who caught on fire," one prisoner told reporters, showing the fingers he fractured in his escape from the fire. "We had to push up the roof panels to get out."
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, according to the United Nations, and there are frequent riots and clashes between rival street gangs in its cramped prisons.
But it was not yet clear if the prison fire was started during a riot or if it was an accident.
Worried and angry relatives surrounded the prison on Wednesday morning, at one point throwing rocks at police and trying to force their way inside the prison.
Police responded by firing shots into the air and shooting tear gas at protesters, most of whom were women.
President Porfirio Lobo said he suspended the director of the Comayagua prison and the head of the national prison system to ensure a thorough investigation.
He promised to "take urgent measures to deal with this tragedy, which has plunged all Hondurans into mourning".
There was confusion over the death toll, with some reports that more than 100 inmates had escaped and could have been mistakenly counted among the dead and others that the dead and missing totaled 402 people -- almost half the prison's inmates.
Lucy Marder, head of forensic services in Comayagua, said police reported that one of the dead was a woman who had stayed overnight at the prison and the rest were inmates, but she said some of the presumed dead could have escaped.
Local media reported that the Comayagua fire department chief also died in the blaze.
VIOLENT GANGS, DRUGS
Honduras' notoriously violent street gangs, known as 'maras', gained power inside Hispanic neighborhoods in the United States in the 1980s and then spread down into Central America. Their members wear distinctive tattoos and are involved in drugs and weapons trafficking, armed robbery and protection rackets.
The Comayagua prison housed more than 850 inmates -- well above its capacity. A local police chief read out the names of 457 survivors outside the prison, but relatives were not appeased.
"This is desperate, they won't tell us anything and I think my husband is dead," a crying Gregoria Zelaya told Canal 5 TV as she stood by a chain link fence.
Local firemen said they were prevented from entering the prison due to gunshots. But Daniel Orellana, head of the prison system, said there was no riot.
"We have two hypotheses, one is that a prisoner set fire to a mattress and the other one is that there was a short circuit in the electrical system," he said.
Across Honduras, prisons are filled to double their capacity with about 12,500 prisoners in jails meant to hold 6,000. More than 100 prisoners were killed in a fire in the textile manufacturing town of San Pedro Sula several years ago, and survivors said later that guards fired on prisoners trying to escape the blaze.
Honduras had more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people in 2009, a rate 16 times that of the United States, according to a United Nations report last year.
The country is a major drug trafficking transit point for South American cocaine moving north to consumers in the United States, and authorities say there is increasing presence of violent Mexican drug cartels in the country.
A political crisis ripped through Honduras in mid-2009 when a widely-condemned coup toppled the democratically elected president but the country has been trying to heal divisions since Lobo was elected later that year.
(Additional reporting by Cyntia Barrera and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico; Editing by Kieran Murray)
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Comayagua prison fire
This article documents a current event. Information may change rapidly as the event progresses.
Location Comayagua, Honduras
Date February 14–15, 2012
Ignition source Suspected electrical fault or riot
Between February 14 and 15, 2012, at least 357 inmates were killed in a fire in the National Prison of Comayagua in Honduras. Many were trapped in their cells and either suffocated or were "burned beyond recognition". The fire in the prison started late in the evening of February 14. According to one prisoner, calls for help went out almost immediately and "for a while, nobody listened. But after a few minutes, which seemed like an eternity, a guard appeared with keys and let us out." Rescue forces did not arrive until about 40 minutes later.
Reuters termed the incident as "one of the worst prison fires ever in Latin America." The Associated Press added that this was "the world’s deadliest prison fire in at least a century."
There were 856 prisoners officially listed on the roster for the prison. The Comayagua prison is considered a medium security facility, but of the inmates were being housed for serious crimes, such as murder and armed robbery. Around 475 prisoners escaped, many through the roof of the facility, while 357 are missing and presumed dead. According to firefighters, around 100 inmates burned to death or suffocated in their cells as the keys to release them could not be located. Around 30 prisoners were transported to the capital to receive specialist treatment for severe burns.
The chief of forensic medicine for the prosecutor's office stated that it would take at least three months to identify all of the victims, mainly from DNA samples.
The exact cause of the fire is not yet know. It was initially believed to have been the result of a riot, during which a mattress was ignited. This was denied by prison authorities who blamed it on an electrical fault. Survivors reported that an inmate was responsible for the fire. The unidentified man reported shouted "We will all die here!" and then set the place on fire. His motives are unknown.
Prison overcrowding, which is common in the region, has been cited as a contributing factor in death toll. According to one survivor, 60 people were packed in a single cell. Honduras has repeatedly been criticized for poor prison conditions by human rights groups in recent years. The Comaygua fire is the fourth prison fire in Honduras since 1994 to result in 70 or more casualties.
Relatives of the prisoners gathered outside the facility to discover the fate of the incarcerated, eventually leading to clashes with the police. Angry family members attempted to storm the prison to claim the remains of their loved ones and had to restrained with tear gas. Some were seen hurling rocks at police officers. The President of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, has demanded a full inquest into the disaster.